SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | Difficulty be damned, they’re going to love it. The Olympic Club, site of this summer’s U.S. Women’s Open, is hard. Really hard. Show up for the first time to the Lake Course and if you break 90, you’re better than most. Break 80 and you feel as though you should buy a round for the house.
If he still was alive you could ask Ben Hogan, who made a mess of the last hole and lost what would have been his fifth U.S. Open to Jack Fleck. Or Arnold Palmer, who shot 39 on the final nine to blow a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper in the 1966 U.S. Open there.
But the best women in the game are going to love the place because Olympic is not a beat-you-to-death kind of difficult – not a Carnoustie or Whistling Straits that leave you feeling like you’ve gone 10 rounds with a Klitschko; not a TPC Sawgrass kind of tough, where every pretty-good shot is repelled into no-man’s land, and a place where you’ve long wanted to quit before getting to the island 17th hole. Olympic is different. It’s the kind of difficult that a good player admires, a decent player likes, an average player appreciates, and a great player loves; the kind of place that demands precision and gets progressively tougher the farther offline you go.
Almost all of the dogleg holes are reverse cambered. If the hole turns left, the fairway slopes to the right and vice versa, which means you better pick the right spot and hit it there or have the ability to work the ball both ways so that you’re hitting it into the hills.
The greens are impossible if you get in the wrong spots. But there are no elephants buried out there, no places where you feel like a mower might capsize. Keep your approach shot below the hole and you will have a makeable putt. Get on the wrong side and you hope your ball hits the hole or you’ve got a healthy one coming back. It’s no wonder that Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller, two of the most accurate iron players in the game’s history, grew up playing there (neither came from country club families, but Olympic is noted for giving privileges to talented juniors).
“It is an intentional, ongoing internal effort in a big way right now” to get the women’s game at venues like Olympic. – John Bodenhamer
The 18th hole is a perfect example, a microcosm of what the Olympic Club represents. It’s short for the final walk in a major – somewhere between 322 to 344 yards – but the 18th has caused more angst and more history than most. It’s where Hogan hit it left and lost; where Palmer had a chance to win and failed; where Payne Stewart lost to Lee Janzen; and where Webb Simpson clinched his one and only major. You don’t need a driver off the tee. A hybrid or iron gets you to the bottom of a fairway with the kind of down-and-up topography you normally find on a Six Flags ride. Then, you’ve only got a 9-iron or wedge up the hill into the green.
Simple enough, right?
Hardly. The elevation change makes even the shortest shot tough to gauge. You can’t see where the ball should land, so it’s hard to pick your spot. Then you have to worry about hitting it straight and the right distance. Sure, a pro should be accurate with a wedge, but this is San Francisco where a cold wind blows all the time. Along with Harding Park, Lake Merced, San Francisco Golf Club and the Cal Club, Olympic sits on the hilly peninsula between the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Bay. So, the wind swoops and swirls between all three with some out-of-nowhere downdrafts that knock great shots to the ground and the occasional gust that blows a perfect wedge over the back.
Then there’s the fact that the 18th green is only nine paces wide. An up-and-out push or a last-second tug and your ball is in one of the cavernous bunkers that the club recently rebuilt. From the bottom of either the left or the right bunker, a player cannot see the top of the flagstick. That’s true of most of the bunkers. And the fronts are steeper than the north face of the Eiger. A casual observer can’t help but wonder how sand defies gravity as it sits on the high side of those walls.
So, even though it’s not long and not that visually intimidating (in fact, with the clubhouse in the background, it’s one of the most inviting final walks in the game) the 18th will produce a lot more bogeys than birdies. That’s the case with many of the holes at Olympic. There are no water hazards on the course and only one fairway bunker (on the left side of the fifth fairway). But if the USGA sets it up tough and the wind blows, the winning score could be over par.
“It is an intentional, ongoing internal effort in a big way right now” to get the women’s game at venues like Olympic, USGA senior director of competitions John Bodenhamer told me in the clubhouse on a beautiful day by the water, not long before we enjoyed one of the club’s famous halfway house burger dogs (ground sirloin shaped to fit on a grilled hotdog bun and topped with American cheese and condiments). “The next few years (of U.S. Women’s Open venues) are fantastic and the years after that are going to be monumental. We’re thinking as big as you can think.”
As for setup, Bodenhamer said of Olympic: “There will be some similarities in what we thought about at Pinehurst. If you think about what we did there, we just played it a little shorter. We used the same hole locations (as in the men’s U.S. Open), the same firmness. And (the women) were able to showcase their games by hitting the same shots with the same clubs into those greens. We’re trying to achieve the same things here so that the women can show that their games are every bit as good as the men’s.”
Bodenhamer also said the rough will be contingent upon the weather: “Cool and heavy will be big factors (in setup). That will be important. We don’t have a target score. We believe in setting it up and letting the golf course be what it was intended to be.”
The next logical question – what was the Olympic Club intended to be? That answer is easy and obvious.
It was intended to be a demanding test at a place that great players are supposed to love.
Top: The clubhouse at The Olympic Club, taken April 11. Photo: John Mummert, USGA
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